Army copter crashes in Naltar; 7 die

Published May 9, 2015
Flames and smoke rise from the site where the military helicopter crashed.—AFP
Flames and smoke rise from the site where the military helicopter crashed.—AFP

What was supposed to be an exciting inauguration of a ski chairlift in scenic Naltar Valley and an excursion trip for the members of Islamabad-based diplomatic corps turned into a tragedy when an army helicopter ferrying foreign envoys and their spouses crashed into a school, killing seven on board. The ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines were among the dead.

Wives of the Ambassador of Indonesia and the High Commissioner of Malaysia, both pilots of the Mi-17 chopper and a crew member were also killed in the accident, reportedly caused due to a technical fault during landing.

The news of the tragedy was announced by military spokesman Maj Gen Asim Bajwa, who said: “There are seven fatalities in the Naltar accident. Four of the dead are foreigners — Ambassador of Norway Leif H. Larsen, Ambassador of Philip­pines Domingo D. Lucenario Jr, wives of Indonesian and Malay­sian envoys Mrs Heri Listyawati Burhan Muhammad and Mrs Datin Habibah Mahmud; and three Pakistanis — Maj Faisal (pilot), Maj Altamash (pilot) and Subaidar Zakir (crew).

Ambassador of Indonesia Burhan Muhammad, foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry in his media briefing on the crash said, was in critical condition as he had received 75 per cent burns.

Other injured foreigners included Polish Ambassador Andrzej Ananicz (spine injury), wife of the Polish envoy (head injury), Dutch Ambassador Marcel de Vink (burns and head injury) and Malaysian High Commissioner (burns).

There were 19 people on board the helicopter, which included 12 foreigners, two military officers and five members of the crew.

• Ambassadors of Norway and Philippines, wives of Malaysian, Indonesian envoys among the dead

• Army loses two pilots
• Day of mourning today

Envoys of Netherlands, Norway, Romania, South Africa, Philippines, Sweden, Lebanon, Malaysia, Poland and Indonesia were on the unfortunate flight.

The dead and injured and other diplomats, who had travelled to Naltar, could not be brought back on Friday because of inclement weather in Gilgit in the afternoon.

This was the most tragic air accident for the Islamabad-based diplomatic corps since the 1988 death of the then US Ambassador Arnold Raphel, along with then President Ziaul Haq, in a C-130 air crash near Bahawalpur.

Domingo D. Lucenario / Leif H. Larsen
Domingo D. Lucenario / Leif H. Larsen

Heads of missions of over 30 countries, some accompanied by their family members, had on Friday morning travelled to Gilgit on board a PAF C-130 transport aircraft, the Foreign Office said in a statement. The guests were then ferried from Gilgit airport to Naltar Bala, 45km from Gilgit town, where the inauguration of the ski chairlift was scheduled to be held, on four helicopters.

Foreign Secretary Chaudhry said the purpose of taking diplomats to the mountainous area was to showcase the beauty of Northern Areas and contribute to the development of the region.

Maj Faisal / Maj Altamash
Maj Faisal / Maj Altamash

Naltar is located in Karakoram Range and is the oldest ski resort in the country at 10,500 feet.

Two helicopters had landed safely before the third crashed during the landing. The fourth helicopter that was still airborne at the time of the accident returned to Gilgit without landing, officials said.

According to eyewitnesses strong winds were blowing at the time of the crash. The chopper dropped with a huge bang and hit the building of Army Public School before catching fire. There were no students and teachers in the school at the time.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was to perform the inauguration, was then en route on his official jet and returned to the federal capital after learning about the news of the crash, the PM Office said.

Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, who was travelling in another helicopter, however, continued his journey to the site and coordinated the rescue operation.

Foreign Secretary Chaudhry said that according to preliminary findings, the accident happened due to a technical fault in the chopper’s engine. It crashed a few metres away from the designated landing point, he added.

TTP CLAIM: Mr Chaudhry ruled out the possibility of sabotage and rejected a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban claim of downing the helicopter as “bogus”.

The TTP in a statement claimed that they had downed the helicopter with a shoulder launch missile and PM Sharif was their original target.

The foreign secretary said there was a strong security cover in the area and all peaks had been manned by troops.

Pakistan Air Force has constituted an inquiry board to probe into the crash.

In reply to a question about the possibility of the countries that lost their envoys joining the investigations, Mr Chaudhry said all details of the accident would be transparently shared with them.

The government soon after the accident reached out to the four countries affected by the accident.

Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz wrote letters to their foreign ministers, while the Foreign Office issued Note Verbales (diplomatic communiqués) notifying the tragedy.

The prime minister phoned his Norwegian counterpart Erna Solberg to offer his condolences, while Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende called Mr Aziz to know about the details.

MOURNING: The government has announced a day of mourning for the dead on Saturday during which the national flag would fly at half-mast.

PM Sharif in a statement said entire Pakistani nation was heartbroken on this incident.

Foreign Secretary Chaudhry said the mortal remains of the dead would be sent to their respective countries with full honours.

Mr Sharif deputed federal ministers Abdul Qadir Baloch, Ahsan Iqbal and Khurram Dastagir to accompany the dead bodies on special flights. Mr Baloch would go to Norway, Mr Ahsan Iqbal to Indonesia and Malaysia and Mr Dastagir to Phillipines.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2015

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